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Emperor Joseph II on the Structure and Political Condition of the Austrian Monarchy and the Holy Roman Empire (1767/68)

The following memorandum was written in French and addressed to the emperor’s brother Leopold, Grand Duke of Tuscany (1765-90) and later Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II (1790-92). In it, Joseph II exposes the Empire’s fault lines (among which religious divisions still loom large) but commits himself to a scrupulous exercise of his Imperial powers for the sake of “the fatherland” and the “Corpus Germanicum.” His post-Baroque, realist and rationalist mentality is on display here.

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[ . . . ]

Let us turn to the empire. Although I have been its head for more than two years, it would still be impossible for me to untangle its system in its particulars. It exists only in books, and I wouldn’t even trust Montesquieu to explain what the various princes and estates see at this moment. Everybody thinks only of himself and seems to have made it a rule to disturb the others. Each confession, every community, every little individual has his own way of seeing things according to his own little brand of politics, preferences or interests, and orients his dealings only according to these things, and in no way towards the common good. They recognize a head [emperor] only in name, and his authority and that of the laws only have effect insofar as they are agreeable to them. Justice gives way to politics. Impunity can be displayed without shame, provided that it is supported by force. In short, the empire consists of various princes, whose interests are diametrically opposed, so that the common good is never considered in the least. The foreign powers, who derive the greatest advantages from the disunity and weakness of the empire, encourage these things at every opportunity. In any case, the electoral agreements have limited the imperial dignity and authority to such an extent that the emperor is not only prevented from acting as he pleases, but also cannot contemplate the common good, although everyone recognizes it.

[ . . . ]

In light of the picture that I have just drawn, it will be easy for you to conclude that it is impossible to undertake or hope for anything great. This would of course demand complete harmony between all of the parts that together make up the empire. Aside from the natural inclination of the estates, all powers also seek, as I just said, to put obstacles in the way of this unison. To do so, they use money, threats, and all conceivable means.

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